Seniors and Poverty/Homelessness Statistics

· Published: July 13, 2021

The news is mixed when it comes to seniors, poverty, and homelessness in the United States. First, the good news: Poverty among people 65 and older has decreased by a dramatic two-thirds in the past 50 or so years.1

Now for some bad news: The actual number of seniors in poverty has increased along with the general senior population. Also, poverty is more common among several subgroups, for instance, Blacks and Hispanics, seniors 80 and older, and unmarried seniors 65 and older. Homelessness has become much more of an issue, too.

This guide presents a wide array of statistics. It explores which seniors are most vulnerable to poverty and homelessness. It also points out the intertwining of systemic racism, poverty, disability, and homelessness. For now, let's look at a few effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Table of Contents

The COVID-19 Pandemic, Senior Incomes, and Housing

The coronavirus pandemic that started in 2019 hurt many families financially. Senior households were no exception, although they were less likely than younger households to report losing income and falling behind on the rent or mortgage.

  • Among adults 65 and older: 26% of renters and 21% of homeowners reported lost income from March to September 2020; 6.5% of renters and 5% of homeowners fell behind on their rent or mortgage.2
  • Workers 55 and older were 17% more likely than workers 35 to 54 to experience job loss during the first six months of COVID-19.3 These job losses could affect retirement savings, housing affordability, mental health, and much more, both in the short and long term.

General Senior Poverty Stats

Time to glance at the definition of poverty in the United States before we get into nitty-gritty stats. The Congressional Research Service explains that the government calculates poverty numbers based solely on pretax cash income. The official poverty measure was created in the 1960s, and its calculations consider food consumption in 1955 and food costs in 1961, adjusted for inflation. 

In other words, the official poverty measure leaves some things to be desired. Expenses such as housing and medical costs don't factor into the definition, nor do programs offering noncash benefits, subsidies, and other forms of assistance.1

Enter the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) used by the Census Bureau to address some of the official measure's shortcomings. Since 2011, the SPM has considered geographical cost of living, cash income, housing subsidies, food stamps, and other in-kind government benefits while also accounting for taxes, work expenses, maximum medical out-of-pocket costs, and other costs.4

The SPM offers a more realistic picture and results in a higher poverty rate among seniors than the official figures do. That said, the less accurate official measure gets trotted out often. For one thing, it offers a consistent glance at poverty across the decades.

Another essential point to consider: The United States does not measure poverty rates among folks in nursing homes, prisons, military bases, and other “institutions.” About 1.2 million seniors live in nursing homes, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Our first set of stats comes from Congressional Research Service analyses. Note that census personnel asked for responses in 2020 based on 2019 incomes. COVID-19 seems to have altered typical reply patterns, with big increases in nonresponses. Officials estimate that the increase in nonresponses led to income figures being skewed upward and general poverty numbers downward. So, current poverty numbers are likely “worse” than what's indicated below.1

  • In 2019, the SPM for seniors 65 and older was 12.8%, while the official poverty rate for seniors was 8.9%. The difference largely comes down to high medical costs, which the official measure does not consider.
  • Among seniors, children, and adults 18 to 64, seniors currently have the lowest poverty rate (note this is not the SPM rate). It used to be that seniors had the highest rate.
1966 2019
Seniors: 28.5% poverty rate 8.9% poverty rate (12.8% SPM)
Adults 18 to 64: 10.5% poverty rate 9.4% poverty rate (11.2% SPM)
Children: 17.6% poverty rate 14.4% poverty rate (12.5% SPM)
  • Two federal programs, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), provide the bulk, 90%, of total cash income to lower-income seniors.
  • If Social Security benefits didn't get included in the SPM, it would increase by 32+%. Non-inclusion of other resources such as SNAP, housing subsidies, and SSI would increase the SPM by about 1% each.
  • In 2019, the poverty line for a single senior 65 or older was $12,261. It was $15,453 for couples 65+ with no children. The poverty lines for seniors in larger households varied depending on the Census Bureau's thresholds on household size and number of children.
  • The percentages of senior men and women in poverty differ noticeably.
    • 80 and older: 13.6% of women in poverty; 7.6% of men
    • 75 to 79: 9.8% of women in poverty; 8.3% of men
    • 70 to 74: 8.7% of women in poverty; 5.9% of men
    • 65 to 69 years old: 9.3% of women in poverty; 7.5% of men
  • In 1975, the poverty rate among Black seniors was 36.3%. In 2019, it was 18%.
  • In 1975, the poverty rate among Hispanic seniors was 32.6%. In 2019, it was 17.1%.
  • In 1975, the poverty rate among white seniors was 13%. In 2019, it was 6.8%.
  • In 1987, the first time it was measured, the poverty rate among Asian seniors was 16.7%. In 2019, it was just under 10%. No consistent trend exists among Asian seniors like it does for other racial groups.
  • Poverty rates among seniors 80 and older halve if the senior lives with someone else.
    • Men: 11.2% poverty rate if they live alone; 6.4% if they live with others
    • Women: 18.9% if they live alone; 8.6% if they live with others
  • Married seniors are less likely to live in poverty than their unmarried counterparts.
    • Married women: 4.7% in poverty
    • Nonmarried women: 15.5% in poverty
    • Widowed women: 14.4% in poverty
    • Divorced women: 15.8% in poverty
    • Never-married women: 16.9% in poverty
    • Married men: 4.4% in poverty
    • Nonmarried men: 13.8% in poverty
    • Widowed men: 10.8% in poverty
    • Divorced men: 14.3% in poverty
    • Never-married men: 18.6% in poverty
  • Many widows receive 33% to 50% less from Social Security after their husband dies. 50% to 100% of the husband's pension/employer plan is likely to disappear, too.
  • CRS offers several possible explanations for the poverty rate differences between widowed and divorced men and women.
    • Women generally make less money than men, which affects Social Security income (women's earnings are about 82% of men's).
    • Employment gaps such as to care for children affect many more women than men. The gaps mean women receive even smaller amounts of Social Security and retirement income.
    • Women tend to live longer than men and face higher odds of being widowed. They're more at risk of asset spend-down due to their deceased spouse's long-term care or medical expenses. Women are also more at risk of inflation and outliving their assets.
    • A woman who outlives her spouse could lose some of the spouse's Social Security and employer/pension benefits.
  • Married seniors are more likely to be poor when they live in households with children.
    • No child in household: 4.1% of senior men in poverty; 4.4% of women
    • Children in household: 8.7% of men in poverty; 10.1% of women
  • The story is different for unmarried seniors. They are more likely to be poor when their household does not include children.
    • Never married: 19% of senior men and 17.1% of women in poverty when household does not include a child; 9.8% of men and 14.4% of women in poverty when household has a child
    • Widowed: 10.9% of senior men and 14.6% of women in poverty when household does not include a child; 8% of men and 12.1% of women in poverty when household has a child
    • Divorced: 14.4% of senior men and 16% of women in poverty when household does not include a child; 12.2% of men and 13% of women in poverty when household has a child
  • Back in 1966, 28.5% of seniors 65 and older lived in poverty (had family incomes under the poverty line). In 2019, 8.9% of seniors lived in poverty.
  • In 1974, 3.1 million seniors lived in poverty. In 2019, 4.9 million did. The elder population as a whole has increased due to longer life expectancies, Baby Boomers getting older, and other causes.
  • At least four-fifths of seniors don't have the personal means to pay for a nursing home stay of more than three years. Nearly two-thirds cannot pay for one year.

Social Security and Other Income Sources for Seniors1

  • 6.8%: The poverty rate of senior Social Security beneficiaries in 2019
  • 35.8%: Percentage of seniors who would live in poverty without Social Security
  • 76.9%: The percentage of total monetary income contributed by Social Security to senior families living below the poverty line, in 2019. (In this case, Social Security includes disability, dependent, and survivor benefits.)
  • 9.8%: The percentage of total monetary income contributed by SSI and other public cash assistance programs to senior families living below the poverty line, in 2019.
  • Other income sources among seniors in poverty include these:
    • Earnings: 4.3%
    • Pensions: 4%
    • Income from assets: 2.3%
    • Other: 2.6%
  • SSI is supposed to help close a gap for seniors and people with disabilities who struggle to meet basic expenses. However, it lacks some balance.
    • The highest SSI benefit in 2019 for seniors 65 and older equaled 75% of the poverty threshold for a single senior and 90% for a married couple.
    • SSI helps married couples more even though they need it less.
  • At least eight government programs provide noncash benefits to various seniors. They include the following:
    • Medicare offers some health care services to almost all seniors
    • Medicaid provides health care services and supports to people with low incomes
    • SNAP benefits help with food purchases
    • Various housing subsidies assist seniors in meeting housing needs
    • Other assistance programs: Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, tax credits

Senior Poverty Stats by State, Plus Food Insecurity, Health Outcomes, Affordable Housing, and More

Stats from America's Health Rankings shine more light onto senior issues.

  • Seniors 65 and older make up 16.5% of the population in the United States. That equals more than 65 million adults. By 2030, the number should exceed 73 million, and 85.7 million by 2050.5
  • Poverty is 2.7 times higher among seniors 65+ who identify as a race other than non-Hispanic white.6
  • Racial and poverty disparities are lowest in Hawaii (1.0 ratio of the racial or ethnic group with the highest poverty rate to the non-Hispanic white rate among adults ages 65 and older) and highest in Connecticut (7.3 ratio).6

By State6

  • Vermont is the state with the lowest percentage of seniors living in poverty: 6.1%. New Hampshire, at 6.2%, is not far behind.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, New Mexico's percentage is 13.5%. It's 13.3% for the District of Columbia.

Housing and the States6

  • 32.7% of households with at least one person 62 or older experience severe housing problems (that's about 1 in every 3 senior households). These problems include:
    • Residents carrying huge cost burdens, spending more than 30% of monthly income on housing (most common severe housing issue)
    • Overcrowding
    • Home lacks plumbing facilities
    • Kitchen lacks all facilities
  • 45.1% of New Jersey seniors experience severe housing issues compared with 18.3% in West Virginia.
  • Seniors are especially vulnerable to geographical differences in housing costs.
  • Seniors who are cost-burdened renters are at higher risk of entering a nursing home in the next three years. The cost burden is more of a factor than health-related indicators such as mental health, physical ability, and apparent health status. Cost-burdened seniors also have less money to spend on medical expenses and food.
  • In 2018, Massachusetts spent the most money, $265 per adult 60 and older, to help keep seniors in their home via community support expenditures. Washington state, at $19, spent the least. The U.S. average was $55. These values represent support under the Older Americans Act (OAA).7
    • 32.9% of seniors receiving OAA support lived in poverty
  • In 2018, $70 billion of Medicaid long-term services and support spending went toward home-based and community based services, including adult daycare, home health aides, and rehabilitation.7

Poverty and Poor Health Outcomes

Poverty carries many direct and indirect effects. To name just a few, it's associated with increased mortality and chronic conditions, and a lack of food, medical care, and stable housing. 

  • Non-white seniors are most affected by poverty. They make up less than 25% of seniors but constitute more than 50% of seniors living in poverty. Due to systemic racism and other factors, a lifecourse (from birth to death) approach is necessary to narrow and eliminate these racial gaps.8
  • 40.9% of seniors 65+ who are Medicare beneficiaries have multiple chronic health conditions.9
  • They have at least four of 21 possible conditions that include asthma, arthritis, heart disease, dementia, and depression.
  • 85.6% of seniors have at least one chronic condition.
  • Chronic conditions carry a huge price tag. On the Medicare side alone, per capita spending was $1,956 on seniors with no chronic conditions or one condition. Spending gapped up to $5,663 for seniors with two or three conditions. The numbers are based on Medicare spending and don't include direct and indirect costs paid by seniors and their families.
    • $1,956: 0 or 1 chronic conditions
    • $5,663: Two or three chronic conditions
    • $11,028: Four or five chronic conditions
    • $31,285: Six or more chronic conditions
  • 41% of U.S. seniors say their health is excellent or very good. The rate was highest in New Hampshire at 52.5% and lowest in Mississippi at 27.8%.

Food Insecurity10

  • 13.3% of seniors 60 and older were affected by food insecurity in 2018, a decrease from 15.8% in 2014. Seniors in Southern states are more likely to experience food insecurity. 
  • 20.9%: Senior food insecurity rate in Nevada vs. 7.3% in Minnesota, 2017 to 2018
  • SNAP reaches about 79.1% of seniors 60+ in poverty
  • In 11 states, including Florida and New York, SNAP apparently reaches 100 of every 100 eligible seniors. Wyoming, at 28.4 of every 100 seniors reached, has the lowest rate of SNAP penetration.

Senior Homelessness in Los Angeles, Portland, and Other Cities

A Los Angeles study points out that the life expectancy of people experiencing homelessness is 64 years versus 77 for a person with housing. The same L.A. study counts a person 55 or older as a senior.11

Some other assessments lower the age to 50. Either way, 50 and 55 are fairly young. However, folks 50 to 64 who experience homelessness fall through support cracks but have higher needs than their same-age housed peers. For instance, they don't qualify for Medicare but may have the medical needs of someone 15 or even 20 years older due to years of disability, poverty, mental stress, and other issues.

In fact, UC San Francisco researchers noted similarities between people in their fifties who experience homelessness and the average housed person in their eighties.12

  • 58-year-olds experiencing homelessness generally struggled more with bathing, dressing, eating, transporting themselves, taking medications, and other tasks than 80-year-olds who had homes. The younger set also had higher rates of falls, depression, disability, and urinary incontinence.
    • About 40% of the seniors experiencing homelessness struggled with at least one activity of daily living
    • 48% reported urinary incontinence
    • 45% reported vision impairment
    • 33% said they'd fallen in the past six months
    • 25% said they had cognitive impairments

Many of these adults end up in nursing homes. Supports such as grab bars in short-term shelters can help. So can longer-term solutions such as supportive housing designed specifically for aging adults experiencing homelessness.

For more numbers, let's look at the 2020 Los Angeles Homeless Count that classifies someone as a senior starting at age 55.11

  • 20%: Increase in senior homelessness
  • 14,896 Los Angeles seniors in total experience homelessness, a rise from 12,421 in 2017
  • 8.1 of every 10 seniors experiencing homelessness are unsheltered, meaning their “home” is a makeshift shelter such as a van, car, or tent. (People experiencing sheltered homelessness stay in shelters or in transitional or temporary housing.)
  • 8 in 10 seniors experiencing homelessness are male
  • 39% of seniors experiencing homelessness are Black or African-American; 25% are Latinx or Hispanic; 30% are white; 1% are Asian; 1% are American Indian/Alaskan Native; 0.4% are native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
  • Some unsheltered seniors have economic supports
    • 64% have health insurance of some sort
    • 50% receive SSI/SSDI
    • 30% receive Cal Fresh (SNAP/food stamps)
  • 50% of seniors experiencing homelessness say that economic hardship is responsible
    • 20% cited health conditions such as physical disability, mental illness, or drug use
    • 30% attributed weak social networks, saying they didn't have family or friends to take them in

Some stats from other cities

Portland, Oregon13

  • 23.4% of people experiencing homelessness in 2019 were 55 or older (939 of 4,015 people)
  • In 2017, 18.5%, or 772, of people experiencing homelessness were 55 to 69 years old; 2019 saw an increase to 21.5% or 862 total. That's a percentage increase of 11.7%
  • In 2017, 44 people 70 or older experienced homelessness in Portland. In 2019, 77 did. That's a huge increase of 75%.

Seattle14

About 1/3 of the people in United Way shelters are 55 or older

New York City15

  • 250% increase from 2004 to 2017 among shelter residents 55 and older 
  • 300+% increase among shelter residents 65 and older during the same time period

General Senior Housing and Homelessness Stats

Homelessness in the United States16

  • More seniors are experiencing homelessness. Among adults 50 and older, homelessness rates increased from 22.9% in 2007 to 33.8% in 2017.
  • 69%: The percentage increase among seniors 62 and older who lived in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The actual number grew by 76,000
  • Homelessness disproportionately affects younger Baby Boomers (born from 1955 to 1965) vs. their older counterparts (born 1945–1954). The younger set faced more economic woes when entering the workforce, which affected income and housing opportunities. They also had a harder time recovering from the 2008 economic crash
  • 19.2%: Percentage of veterans 62+ years old experiencing homelessness
    • The percentage was 8.7% in 2009

Housing Accessibility, Support, and Assistance16

  • Only about one-third of low-income seniors receive subsidized rental assistance
  • Accessible housing is even more important because lower-income seniors tend to have more disabilities.
    • 42% of lower-income seniors report walking disabilities vs. 33% of higher-income
    • 16% of lower-income seniors report self-care difficulties vs. 11% of higher-income
    • 45% of lower-income seniors reported fair or poor health vs. 34% of higher-income
  • A huge senior housing crisis is looming as racial minorities and younger Baby Boomers age, have fewer resources, and live alone in low-accessibility housing.

The People Seniors Live With16

  • Small households are the norm for seniors 65 and older. In 2017, 35 million of the almost 50 million seniors in the U.S. lived alone or with a spouse/partner
  • The older seniors are, the more likely they are to live alone. 57% of seniors 80 or older live alone, and their numbers will rise as seniors live longer. Housing units need to become more accessible and supportive
  • Multigenerational living is still fairly common. From 2007 to 2017, the number of seniors living with a relative from another generation increased from 6 million to 9.8 million. About 20% of seniors currently fit this living situation.
    • 9.3 million live with adult children or grandchildren
    • 442,000 live with parents or in-laws
    • 84,000 live with parental units and children/grandchildren
  • Multigenerational living is more prevalent among minorities. It's expected to increase even more as the numbers of Hispanics and Asians swell.
    • Hispanics: 47% of Hispanic seniors 80 and older live with other generations; nearly 40 percent of Hispanic seniors 65 to 79 do
    • Asians/Other: Figures are similar to Hispanics'
    • Blacks: 36% of Black seniors 80 and older live with other generations; nearly 27 percent of Black seniors 65 to 79 do
    • Whites: 18% of white seniors 80 and older live with other generations; nearly 14 percent of white seniors 65 to 79 do
  • Roommate or group living is relatively rare among seniors. Only about 921,000 seniors (1.8%) live with nonrelatives. In 2007, 1.3% of seniors did.
  • Meanwhile, 3% of seniors (1.5 million) live in group housing, primarily skilled nursing facilities. This number is a decrease from 1.9 million in 2007.

Rent, Own, and Cost Burdens16

  • The U.S. has 24 million homeowners aged 65 or older: 80% of homeowner seniors live in detached single-family units at least 40 years old. The homes' age increases the likelihood of costly maintenance issues.
  • The U.S. has nearly 7 million senior renters: Larger apartment buildings (versus smaller buildings or single-family homes) are especially attractive to seniors 80 and older. 40% of them live in such buildings vs. 21% for younger seniors. The jump in popularity could be due to elevators, single-floor units, and other accessibility measures as seniors age.
  • In 2019, 42% of homeowners 65 and older carried debt on their home, up from 21% in 1989. Their median balances grew from $18,000 in 1989 to $86,000 (both figures in 2019 dollars).
  • In 2019, 27% of homeowners 80 and older carried mortgage debt, a jump from 3% in 1989.
  • Half of cost-burdened senior households in 2019 spent more than 50% of their income on housing. The other half spent between 30% to 50%. All in all, 10.2 million senior households were cost-burdened in 2019.
  • Cost-burdened seniors spent $194 a month on food and $174 on health care out of pocket. These are lower amounts compared with $365 for food and $345 for medical expenses for seniors in affordable housing.

Seniors and Poverty/Homelessness Statistics

Plenty of seniors in the United States fall below the poverty threshold. Many live in cars, tents, and other makeshift shelters. Programs such as Social Security, SNAP, and Medicare help somewhat but do not solve structural racism, gender inequities, a lack of health care, undertreatment of mental illness, and the many issues involved with poverty and homelessness. 

In fact, it can take just one serious medical crisis (or global pandemic!) for seniors living in affordable housing to fall behind on their bills. From there, it might be a matter of time before these seniors can no longer pay for basic necessities. The line between seniors who live in poverty and those who don't gets blurry quickly.

References and Endnotes

  1. Li, Zhe, and Dalaker, Joseph. (Updated 2021, April 14). Poverty Among the Population Aged 65 and Older. PDF. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45791.pdf
  2. Molinsky, Jennifer. (2020, Dec. 17). Ten Insights about Older Households from the 2020 State of the Nation's Housing Report. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/blog/ten-insights-about-older-households-2020-state-nations-housing-report
  3. Terrell, Kenneth. (2020, Oct. 21). Unemployment’s Toll on Older Workers Is Worst in Half a Century. AARP. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info-2020/pandemic-unemployment-older-workers.html
  4. Bridges, Benjamin, and Gesumaria, Robert V. (2015). The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) and Children: How and Why the SPM and Official Poverty Estimates Differ. Social Security Administration. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v75n3/v75n3p55.html
  5. Population Ages 65+. (2021). America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/pct_65plus/state/ALL
  6. Senior Report 2021. (2021, May). PDF. America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://assets.americashealthrankings.org/app/uploads/2021-senior-report.pdf
  7. Community Support Expenditures. (2021). America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/community_support_sr_b/state/ALL
  8. Poverty Racial Disparity – Ages 65+. (2021). America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/PovertySr_disparity/state/ALL
  9. Multiple Chronic Conditions – Ages 65+. (2021). America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/mult_chronic_conditions_sr_a/state/ALL
  10. SNAP Reach – Ages 60+. (2021). America's Health Rankings. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/SNAP_Reach/state/ALL
  11. 2020 Homeless Count – Older Adult Dashboard Summary. (2020). Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.lahsa.org/documents?id=5150-2020-homeless-count-older-adult-dashboard-summary
  12. Kurtzman, Laura. (2016, Feb. 26). Homeless People Suffer Geriatric Conditions Decades Early, UCSF Study Shows. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2016/02/403511/homeless-people-suffer-geriatric-conditions-decades-early-ucsf-study-shows
  13. 2019 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness in Portland/Gresham/Multnomah County, Oregon. (2019). PDF. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/566631e8c21b864679fff4de/t/5d434f685800cf0001847e20/1564692373569/2019+PIT+Report_FINAL.pdf
  14. United Way of King County Strategy and Investment Plan Fiscal Year 2017. (2016). PDF. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.uwkc.org/wp-content/uploads/ftp/2017_SIP.pdf
  15. A Data-driven Re-design of Housing Supports and Services for Aging Adults Who Experience Homelessness in New York City. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www1.nyc.gov/site/cidi/projects/aging-homeless-study.page
  16. Housing America's Older Adults 2019. (n.d.). PDF. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/reports/files/Harvard_JCHS_Housing_Americas_Older_Adults_2019.pdf

Additional Resources

To learn more about senior poverty and homelessness, check out these resources.